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Ian Brinkley
Economic Advisor
Ian Brinkley

Night tubes and seven day working in the NHS - part of the 24 hour society?

Authors: Ian Brinkley

02 February 2016

Unsocial hours working have been at the heart of two major industrial disputes in recent months. The attempt to run underground trains at night in London looks as if it may be edging towards a settlement. But the British Medical Association (BMA) and the Government remain locked in dispute over a new contract for junior doctors that would allow full seven day working across the NHS.

Are these part of a broader trend towards the 24/7 society where we want and need access to an increasing range of services at anytime, day or night? There is good reason to think that unsocial hour working is on the rise enabled by new technologies that means people never quite leave their desks, and more jobs in areas such as retail, hospitality, social care and tourism where some week-end working and evening is often required.

I’ve used the latest 2014 Eurostat data taken from the European Labour Force Survey to look at the incidence of working on Saturdays and Sundays, at nights and in the evenings. Looking at long term trends over time is problematic because of breaks in the time-series, so strictly speaking the estimates for the 1990s are not directly comparable with more recent periods.

On the face of it more people have work-free weekends, evenings and nights today than in the 1990s. The share of people who said they never worked Saturday has increased from just under 40 per cent in 1992 to 60 per cent in 2014 and the share who said they never worked Sundays has increased from 60 per cent to 73 per cent. The share of people who said they never worked evenings increased from just under 50 per cent to just over 60 per cent, and the share who said they never worked nights went up from 77 per cent to 84 per cent.

But as ever, there may be more to it when we dig a little deeper. The same data shows that the share of the workforce who do unsocial hours as part of their usual pattern of working has increased, although not dramatically. What has changed is that far fewer people do unsocial working on an occasional basis. Unsocial hour working is more concentrated and more regularised than in the past. The main exception is evening work, where occasional working is still the norm. This is shown in the chart below.

But we may also have a problem of interpretation. In 1992 the technologies that allow us to work almost anywhere and at anytime were only just starting to have an impact on the workplace. It is possible that today people who spend a few minutes checking and responding to e-mails in the evenings and week-ends would not report it as formal work. We may therefore be understating the way in which work extends beyond normal working hours in today’s working environment.

These work patterns were remarkably similar to the EU28 average in 2014, looking just at the share of those who said they either usually or sometimes did some unsocial hours working. For historical comparisons, we have had to take the EU15 average and the year 1995. What they show is that over time the UK has converged towards the EU average.

There is a puzzle here – why is unsocial hour working apparently less common today than in the past, when so may forces seem to be pushing in the opposite direction? In part it is because unsocial hours working have become much more visible. We notice the 24 hour supermarket but not the night-shifts in manufacturing or mining. So while more people are working nights in services, far fewer work in manufacturing and employment in mining has virtually disappeared. Moreover, the share may have fallen, but the absolute numbers working unsocial hours has gone up - just not as quickly as jobs with more normal working arrangements. Unsocial working measured by total hours worked may have increased much more significantly with the shift from occasional to usual working.

New technologies can enable more unsocial hour working, but it can also reduce or even remove some. Some 24 hours services are now automated, and require few if any human operators, and more conventionally deliver services required with much lower staffing densities than in the day. Robotic production lines and other changes have reduced the need for large numbers of manual workers to work nights. Moreover, some of the unsocial hour working has been exported to offshore call-centres (though time zone differences mean that not all the jobs moved overseas require unsocial hour working).

Lastly, there seems to have been a sea-change in the employment of some young people identified by UKCES in a recent report documenting the death of the Saturday job for under 18s1. The report found that in 1997 over 40 per cent of 16 and 17 year olds studied and worked, but by 2014 this had fallen to just 18 per cent. This is clearly a contributory factor to the drop in occasional working shown below.

Whatever the outcomes of the two head-line grabbing disputes, the numbers involved are unlikely to significantly change the working patterns for the workforce as a whole. Unsocial working measured by formal working arrangements is not on the rise but it is becoming more concentrated among a significant minority of the workforce. Yet it is hard to escape the nagging doubt that the conventional survey questions are not fully capturing the many ways in which work can now intrude into our lives outside the normal working day.